The President of the United States of America is said to be the most powerful man (and man he always has been) on Earth, a leader who controls the most powerful military, the strongest economy and the country with the most cultural influence. For good or ill, he probably lays a better claim to the title than any other. George Bush is President and will be until January 2009, but he is a spent force, bogged down in a losing war on which much of his political capital has been expended and not at home with a Democratic congress; he is stuck, neither side willing to pay anything but lip service to bipartisan action, especially since Bush shunned the flawed Baker-Hamilton report to follow his preposterous ‘surge’ policy.
He may yet regain his faltering grip like Reagan did after Iran-Contra (albeit with the help of the crumbling of Soviet eastern Europe) or Clinton did after Monica Lewinsky with the help of fiscal surplus, an economic boom and the eventually doomed but hopeful Camp David talks (promising to revive hopes of peace in the middle east). At this time, the signs do not look good. This may help to explain why, with nearly two years left, Bush is fast becoming eclipsed by the race to succeed him.
Americans seem keen to look past the Bush administration, but it is far from clear what or whom they envisage as taking over from it. Indeed, this is the most open race for the White House since 1928, when Herbert Hoover swept to victory with no incumbent president or vice president taking part. On both the Republican and Democratic sides, three or four candidates stand a good chance of nomination in the primary season (the state-by-state votes assign delegates to a candidate, totted up in the summer’s party conventions) and both have a few long shot candidates who, due to a system far kinder to the outsider than the selection process of party leaders in the UK, could have a chance. It is partly the manner of this nomination process that makes the battle for the US premiership so enthralling so early. It shows politics at its rawest, with shifting loyalties, volatile momentums and grassroots activism.
The first thing that makes the primary season so extraordinary is its length; it stretches over half a year and can be dominated by one candidate, but can equally allow brutal change, where momentum is the key, where heirs apparent fall and dark horses rise. The second is the uniquely compelling way in which it begins. Each state holds a primary, each one assigning a varying number of delegates to a candidate depending on which one wins the popular vote in the state (a few allocate proportionally to the votes cast). The key to the compelling nature of the race is the size of the first few states to hold primaries. These are Iowa, New Hampshire, and then a few other small states. That these states are so small and that the candidates must gather momentum and interest to carry them through to the larger states with more delegates means that they become theatres for grassroots politics, where every vote counts and even the best funded, best known candidates have to attend hustings and town hall meetings. This process also has the effect of levelling the playing field a little, so that the under-funded, dark horse candidates can come to the fore, using cheap and personal campaign tactics, often meeting with the voters. These long shots can then gain the recognition and momentum required to collect the large sums needed for the later fights in large states where TV adverts, the internet and posters become the only viable way of reaching the electorate. The patron saint of the underdog has long been James Earl Carter, who rose from being a virtual unknown outside of Georgia, scoring well in early 1976 primaries, to going on to win the nomination, then the presidency against the flawed incumbent, Gerald Ford. Bill Clinton also came from behind (and faced early accusations of sexual philandering and draft dodging) to secure the nomination against a better known field in 1992, despite losing out in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Unfortunately, moves have been made to move the vast California primary back to late January, making it third after Iowa and New Hampshire. This would essentially wrap up the process in a month and close the race to less well funded candadates, it could also prompt other states to follow suit.
This article will present a profile of the major Democratic candidates (Republicans come in a forrtnight). The field is already full of viable candidates; at least three have strong bids and even the long shots have surprising appeal. Whatever happens, it will be interesting.
Hillary Clinton- The New York senator is still polling ahead of the rest of her party’s candidates despite having lost her status as heir apparent since Obamamania began and despite the fact that a large portion of her own party dislikes her. She is still the woman to beat for the Democratic nomination. In terms of chances of winning the primaries, she has several things in her favour. She, of all the Democrats, has the greatest name recognition, having been a household name since the early Nineties (when she was First Lady). She has also taken on a large part of her husband’s formidable campaign team, who are able to raise vast sums of money and perform near miracles (such as Bill’s phoenix-like rising from his poor start in the ’92 primaries to become nominee and then the President in ’93). She is also, whatever her detractors say, a centrist appealing to the middle ground, not arguing for any radical policies since the first few yars of being first lady. She is known to be shrewd and calculating, and has even been criticised for being cold, perhaps an appealing quality after the impulsiveness and ideology of the Bush administration. Having been in the spotlight for so long, Hillary also has a lot of enemies, some willing to insult her for being a Trojan horse for the left wing agenda, reminding people of her days as a women’s rights activist and her expensive and oft derided healthcare plans which she drew up in the early years of Bill’s administration. The right are even willing to dredge up memories of her work for the left wing presidential campaign of George McGovern in 1972; also, expect to hear more about the Whitewater scandal as her enemies on all sides go over the sleazy Clinton administration of the Nineties. She is, perversely, also hated by the left wing of her own party, who will never forgive her for voting for and supporting, albeit with growing criticism, the war in Iraq or for the centrism of Bill’s administration. Trumpeter feels that the main stumbling block for Hillary will be the nomination process; she faces at least two more glamorous and personally appealing opponents, and after Kerry in 2004 and Gore in 2000, the Democrats may want a candidate with more appeal than Hillary can offer. The nation also wants a change from the partisanship into which American politics has recently sunk; Hillary is too much a figure of the past to represent change. I may be wrong, but I think Hillary Clinton will not be in the White House come January 2009.
Barack Obama- Both young in years and young to politics, the junior senator from Illinois is the candidate who has really fired up the race. He is a mesmerising orator who first entered the spotlight delivering the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention and has since carved out a position as a front runner for the nomination and has become the first truly credible black candidate for president. Being both black and very appealing, he has gained star like quality and is the darling of the press. There are many reasons to take him seriously; unlike previous black candidates like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, he is not a longstanding figure in the civil rights movement and is thus not a one trick pony. He makes no issue of his colour, and as a result it is likely that others will not. He also opposed the Iraq war from the start, a very important issue in the nomination and general election, saying: “I am not opposed to all wars, I’m opposed to dumb wars.” He, as a member of the new generation, claims credibly to be able to move the country beyond the loathed partisanship of Washington. He has also played a part in the, thus far, succesful democratic control os congress, helping to push through a rise in minimum wage, cheaper medicene and a raft of other kind, if small, measures. The key criticism he must suffer is that he has little experience; Trumpeter believes that this criticism is invalid, since he has had a distinguished career as a lawyer and the first black head of Harvard’s ‘Law Review’, and has also published two books, ‘Dreams From My Father’ and ‘The Audacity Of Hope,’ and has therefore proved himself to be a sensible man with a thoughtful approach. ‘Dreams…’ in particular showed an intellectual honesty so long missing from high lever US politics. He has also hinted towards strong environmental policies and a move away from the interventionist, confrontational foreign policy of the Clinton and Bush Administrations to a more multilateral approach focusing on poverty and corruption around the world (what he believes to be the key causes of strife and conflict). For these reasons, he is Trumpeter’s choice for the democratic nomination.
John Edwards- The former North Carolina Senator has had much of the limelight stolen from him by Obama, who tends to appeal to the same anti-war liberals as Edwards. He is, however, not to be underestimated. The better half of the 2004 Kerry-Edwards run for president, he is a deeply emotive orator, passionate about poverty wherever it may lie, passionate about extending healthcare, passionate about civil rights and (in a move that Trumpeter fears and loathes) is passionate about protecting American jobs from outsourcing. Indeed, he has an uncannily effecting ability to be passionate about anything, be it a little girl dying in the arms of her mother in Darfur (“It does not have to be this way” bringing the seed of a tear even to Trumpeter’s uncaring eyes) or preventing jobs from going abroad. This is not justhollow speach , he has spent much ofthelastfour years setting up a poverty think tank at North Carolina’s University. He is a thoroughly populist and often popular candidate; having simply renounced his vote to authorise the Iraq war, he is now the darling of the anti war majority. He has already proved his power as a strong campaigner; in 2004, he came from behind, mounting a strong and growing challenge to come second in Iowa and became the only serious opponent to Kerry. He lost only due to the misguided sense of certainty and solidity that had built up around his opponent. Right now, he may not have the media clout of Obama or the organisation of Hillary Clinton, and has been attacked over his feminist “blogmaster” (who was caught baiting Christians by accusing them of oppressing women in order to fulfil the fetish of the virgin – never a good idea in American politics) but Trumpeter believes that we will hear a lot more from the man with the smile who is modelling his run on Bobby Kennedy’s assassinated 1968 appeal for rights, change and an end to war. As if to support this belief, recent polls have shown him ahead of Obama and far ahead of Clinton in both New Hampshire and Iowa, both of which he has been visiting since his last run for presidency. This may allow him to snatch the position as early front runner in January. Edwards is certainly the one to watch.
Joe Biden- the senior Senator from Delaware has, for a long time, been somewhere near the top of the party, running for president in 1988, 2004 and again this time. He is chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is seen as something of a foreign policy heavyweight. He has the strength of being a trusted figure in the mainstream of the party, and somebody who is well qualified to sort out the mess of Iraq. He is also liked in his home state where he is known for persistent attention to local needs. The main problems facing his campaign are that he is seen as too boring, lacking the star power of Edwards or Obama, and that he supported the Iraq war, even if he did consistently ask for more troops and criticised management; still, this is probably a negative. Bizarrely, he pulled out of the ’88 race after being forced to admit plagiarising Neil Kinnock’s speeches. Overall, Trumpeter is left with the impression that Biden will not make enough impact to really get into this race.
Dennis Kucinich- The Ohio congressman represents the left wing of the Democratic Party and has no serious chance of winning, but for those who followed the 2004 primaries the news of his running comes as a joy. Having opposed the Iraq war, the Patriot Act and the Bush administration doggedly as well as standing up for civil rights, the “right to choose”, the abolition of the death penalty, gay marriage, environmentalism, ending the war on drugs, trade protectionism, social security and the right to healthcare as well as democratic reform, Kucinich, with Al Sharpton (who may also run again), made the Democratic debates worth watching last time around. Both free agents who looked like they genuinely enjoyed the race were able to inject a degree of honesty and wit to a flaccid campaign dominated by the limp John Kerry. Trumpeter is a true fan, if not a comprehensive supporter, of Dennis.
Bill Richardson (Right)- The Governor of New Mexico and former energy minister is the first serious Hispanic candidate for president. He has always been interested in foreign affairs, flying to Sudan recently to negotiate the release of an imprisoned journalist. He has consistently fought for the rights of both Hispanics and Native Americans, the two large ethnic groups in his state. He is also one of the breed of right wing democrats who have achieved electoral success recently, attracting praise from the conservative “CATO institute” for cutting taxes. His chances for gaining nomination are slim; he is unknown nationally and has not created any media buzz or stirred the polls in a crowded group.
Chris Dodd- (Below) The Connecticut senator has positioned himself as the cream of the long shots; he has vocally opposed the war and criticised the US’s Latin America policy, which has alienated many countries and exported cheap foodstuffs to others meaning that their farmers have no viable choice but to grow cocaine, which is then sprayed. He has also called for gun control, and pleasingly supported the North American Free Trade Agreement. He is Trumpeter’s favourite long shot candidate.
Tom Vilsack- (Right) The former Governor of Iowa, while being the second person to announce his candidacy, has created almost no stir, trailing in the polls, even in the state he once governed. He is, however a serious candidate who has become increasingly critical of the war in Iraq and is a long time advocate of energy security, a notion close the heart of the US public who are increasingly scared by being dependent on volatile countries for oil. Trumpeter does not think he will make a splash, but, as candidates move, some falling, he may rise. Anything can happen.
Al Gore? – The man who won but lost the 2000 election against George Bush has had an amazing change of fortunes since that day. At the time seen as boring and ineffectual in comparison with Bush’s flair, he is now seen as one of the potential front runners for nomination. His revival began with vocal opposition to the Iraq war and then harsh criticism of its management; he was one of the few senior members of the Democratic Party to do so. Since then he has returned to the environmental activism for which he has always had a passion, making the acclaimed film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. His transformation has been so complete that he has even begun to make inspiring speeches. He has repeatedly said that he will not run, but if he chose to, with his popularity and profile, he could, even as late as the end of the year, very well become nominee and President. This would, interestingly, echo the path Nixon took from 1960 to 1968, losing a close election, reinventing himself and coming back to win. Having been vice president for eight years and a committed, effective activist, if he ran, he would have the right balance of experience, gravity and charisma to make a very good president, snatching Trumpeter’s support from Obama and leaving open the opportunity of the dream Gore-Obama 08 ticket. He would also have the advantage of being a fresh face in the race, a benefit when the public has been subjected to a year of Obama, Hilary and Edwards day in day out for a year.
In the months ahead, a lot will change. I will be following this story as close as any.